We usually laugh when we hear things like that, but there are times when the Court will excuse a person’s conduct under that exact theory.
Everyone has probably heard of self defense, and probably understands what it means. The general understanding is most likely something along the lines of: It was okay for me to hit the guy because he hit me first, and he was coming to hit me again.
There is another legal doctrine in Utah that gives someone a free pass to break the law that is not as widely known about as self defense, it is called: legal compulsion, and it essentially means that a person committed the elements of a crimes, but only committed them because he or she was forced against their will do so.
Legal Compulsion in Utah is defined in Utah Code § 76-2-303. The section states:
(1) A person is not guilty of an offense when he engaged in the proscribed conduct because he was coerced to do so by the use or threatened imminent use of unlawful physical force upon him or a third person, which force or threatened force a person of reasonable firmness in his situation would not have resisted.
(2) The defense of compulsion provided by this section shall be unavailable to a person who intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly places himself in a situation in which it is probable that he will be subjected to duress.
(3) A married woman is not entitled, by reason of the presence of her husband, to any presumption of compulsion or to any defense of compulsion except as in Subsection (1) provided.
Legal compulsion, in straight terms, means that if you are coerced to do an illegal act, by threat of harm, then you are not criminally liable for criminal act.
1. What does the case law say?
The Utah Court of Appeals in State v. Ott, citing, State v. Tuttle, put forth two elements that are required to be able to assert the defense of legal compulsion. The elements are:
1. the defendant must be faced with a specific, imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury, and 2) there is no reasonable legal alternative to violating the law.
So, legal compulsion is not a slam dunk. There has to be immediate threat, and no reasonable alternative to not breaking the law. The court continued by addressing what is required for the immediate threat requirement:
“the Utah Court has stated that “a threat directed to some indefinite time in the future is not an imminent threat” for purposes of the defense of compulsion.”
The good news is that the law recognizes that there are situations were a person broke the law, but, it wasn’t their fault. However, there must immediate harm, and no other reasonable alternative to breaking the law.